Desert tortoises are herbivores so they should exclusively eat plants. As you plan their diet, ensure that it consists of a variety of vegetables (high in fiber and easy to digest) that provide the necessary nutrients for their growth and overall health. Fruits are acceptable in moderation, but should be mostly viewed as a treat and not a food to make a part of their regular diet. My top suggestions are listed below.
Best Fruits and Vegetables to Feed a Desert Tortoise
The best fruits and vegetables for a Desert tortoise are grasses/hay. However, leafy greens and low sugar fruit are also good options.
Grasses and Hay
In their natural environment, grasses and hay are staples of a desert tortoises diet. They are high in fiber and low in protein and generally pretty easy for them to find. In captivity, you can feed them grasses and hay that you can find at any pet store.
My top choices are: timothy hay, alfalfa hay, or Bermuda grass. I have a separate article where I walk through a more in depth recommendation of my top hay suggestions for tortoises.
Vegetables for your Desert tortoise
When feeding other vegetables a helpful rule of thumb is vegetables that high in fiber and low in sugar. Squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes fit this profile well, making them easy to digest.
For the most part, leafy greens are a safe bet, however there are a few important rules to follow. Greens like kale, collard greens, dandelion greens, and mustard greens are acceptable as they are low in calories and high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
It is important that you avoid spinach for your desert turtle. This is due to the high levels of oxalates in spinach which will bind to calcium and prevent the absorption of other critical nutrients.
Fruits for your Desert tortoise
As mentioned in the beginning, fruits should only be given in moderation to desert tortoises as they are high in sugar. When you do feed them fruit as treats, opt for fruits that are relatively lower in sugar and fruits that have hight water content.
Fruits that fit that profile include berries, melons, and apples. Always make sure to remove any seeds or stems that those fruits may have as they will be a choking hazard for your desert tortoise. You should also cut the fruit into small pieces so it is easy for your tortoise to swallow.
Cactus pads, sometimes called nopales, are another common food that desert tortoises eat in the wild. They are rich in water, fiber, and other essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin C. Before feeding your tortoise cactus pads make sure to remove the thorns.
Additionally, you can opt in for genetically modified thorn-less cactus pads that local pet shops often carry. A final tip is to slice the pads into smaller pieces, allowing for much easier consumption. One good option is prickly pear cactus.
What to do if your desert tortoise isn’t eating?
If you notice that your desert tortoise is not eating, it could potentially be a sign of an underlying health issue. Here are some steps you can take to help diagnose the issue and get them eating again:
Ensure you have proper temperature and lighting
Desert tortoises require specific temperature and lighting conditions that mirror their natural habitat in order to stay healthy. If the temperature or lighting is inadequate, your turtle may become lethargic and stop eating. I recommend reading my article on the optimal lighting set up for tortoises.
Due to their natural habitat, Desert tortoises require temperatures between 70-90 degrees. This means they are not a good tortoise for cold climates.
You can learn more about a desert tortoise’s habitat in this article.
Start tracking the diet you feed them daily
Make sure you follow the guidelines above which will ensure you are meeting your turtle’s nutritional needs. While analyzing the feeding data, make sure that fruits make up no more than 20% of their calories consumed.
Also double check every fruit and vegetable you feed them to make sure that the food is fresh and clean. If you notice old food that goes uneaten for over a day, make sure to remove it from their habitat as it might be a sign it isn’t fresh.
It’s important that you don’t overfeed your tortoise, as this can result in pyramiding.
Offer favorite foods as a treat
If your tortoise has a favorite food, offer it to them to see if it excites them and stimulates their appetite. Don’t do this too often as it will lead to an unbalanced diet. But if you know that berries are their favorite food, you can assume something is wrong if they all of a sudden start to avoid them.
Try gently hand-feeding your tortoise: Some turtles may be more willing to eat if they are hand-fed. You can also try tongs to offer small pieces of food directly to your turtle.
It may feel like there is a lot to remember, but I hope these guidelines help! As long as you keep the food fresh and clean and free from pesticides or chemicals, you shouldn’t have too much to worry about. Lastly, always provide clean water! Dirty water can also cause significant health issues.